Wag the Dog
|Wag the Dog|
theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Barry Levinson|
|Produced by||Barry Levinson
Robert De Niro
|Screenplay by||Hilary Henkin
|Based on||American Hero (novel)
by Larry Beinhart
Robert De Niro
William H. Macy
|Music by||Mark Knopfler|
|Edited by||Stu Linder|
|Distributed by||New Line Cinema|
Wag the Dog is a 1997 black comedy film produced and directed by Barry Levinson. The screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, with Anne Heche, Denis Leary, and William H. Macy in supporting roles.
The film follows a Washington, D.C. spin doctor (De Niro) who, mere days before a presidential election, distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer (Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania.
Wag the Dog was released one month before the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration, which prompted the media to draw comparisons between the film and reality.
The President of the United States is caught making advances on an underage "Firefly Girl" less than two weeks before Election Day. Conrad Brean (De Niro), a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a diversionary war with Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman) to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a photogenic orphan (Kirsten Dunst) in Albania.
When the CIA learns of the plot, they send Agent Young (Macy) to confront Brean who convinces him that revealing the deception is against his best interests. The CIA announces that the war has ended, but otherwise maintains the deception and the media begins to turn back to the President's abuse scandal. Motss decides to invent a hero who was left behind enemy lines, and inspired by the idea that he was "discarded like an old shoe" has the Pentagon provide him with a soldier named Schumann (Harrelson) around whom he constructs a further narrative including T-shirts, additional patriotic songs, and faux-grassroots demonstrations of patriotism. At each stage of the plan, Motss continually dismisses setbacks as "nothing" and compares them to past movie-making catastrophes he averted.
When the team goes to retrieve Schumann, they discover he is in fact a criminally insane Army prison convict before their plane crashes en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The team survives and is rescued by a farmer, but Schumann attempts to rape the farmer's daughter and the farmer kills him. Motss then stages an elaborate military funeral, claiming that Schumann died from wounds sustained during his rescue.
While watching a political talk show Motss gets frustrated that the media are crediting the president's win to a tired campaign slogan of "Don't change horses in mid-stream" rather than Motss's hard work. Despite previously claiming he was inspired by the challenge, Motss announces that he wants credit and will reveal his involvement, despite Brean's warning that he is "playing with his life". Motss refuses to back down, so Brean reluctantly has him killed and makes it look as if he had a heart attack. The president is successfully re-elected and a news report about a violent incident in Albania is shown, but it is ambiguous whether this is a true event or simply a continuation of the fictional war.
Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because a dog is smarter than its tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.
Motss and Evans
Hoffman's character is said to have been based directly upon famed producer Robert Evans. Similarities have been noted between the character and Evans' work habits, mannerisms, quirks, clothing style, hairstyle, and large, square-framed eyeglasses; in fact, the real Evans is said to have joked, "I'm magnificent in this film." Hoffman has never discussed any inspiration Evans may have provided for the role, and claims on the commentary track for the film's DVD release that much of Motss' characterization was based on Hoffman's father, Harry Hoffman, a former prop manager for Columbia Pictures.
The award of writing credits on the film became controversial at the time, due to objections by Barry Levinson. After Levinson became attached as director, David Mamet was hired to rewrite Hilary Henkin's screenplay, which was loosely adapted from Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero.
Given the close relationship between Levinson and Mamet, New Line Cinema asked that Mamet be given sole credit for the screenplay. However, the Writers Guild of America intervened on Henkin's behalf to assure that Henkin received first-position shared screenplay credit, finding that—as the original screenwriter—Henkin had created the screenplay's structure as well as much of the screen story and dialogue.
Levinson thereafter threatened to (but did not) quit the Guild, claiming that Mamet had written all of the dialogue as well as creating the characters of Motss and Schumann, and had originated most of the scenes set in Hollywood and all of the scenes set in Nashville. Levinson attributed the numerous similarities between Henkin's original version and the eventual shooting script to Henkin and Mamet working from the same novel, but the WGA disagreed in its credit arbitration ruling.
The film featured many songs created for the fictitious campaign waged by the protagonists; these songs include "Good Old Shoe", "The American Dream", and "The Men of the 303". However, none of these pieces made it onto the soundtrack CD. The CD featured only the title track (by British guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler) and seven of Knopfler's instrumentals.
Wag the Dog received very positive reviews, with 85% of the critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes giving it favorable reviews. At the website Metacritic, which employs a normalized rating system, the film earned a favorable rating of 73/100 based on 22 reviews by mainstream critics. Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars and wrote in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, "The movie is a satire that contains just enough realistic ballast to be teasingly plausible; like Dr. Strangelove, it makes you laugh, and then it makes you wonder."
Awards and honors
The film was nominated for two 70th Academy Awards: Dustin Hoffman for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Hilary Henkin and David Mamet for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was also entered into the 48th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "This is nothing!" – Nominated
- Astroturfing, a controversial public relations practice depicted in the film
- Canadian Bacon and Wrong Is Right, films about an American war started for similar reasons
- "Business info" on IMDb
- Turan, Kenneth (December 24, 1997). "'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 23, 2013.
A gloriously cyncial black comedy that functions as a wicked smart satire on the interlocking world of politics and show business...
- "Wag the Dog Back In Spotlight". CNN. August 20, 1998. Retrieved May 23, 2013.
- "Idiom: wag the dog". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
- "Tiger Plays It Cool Under Big-cat Pressure". Orlando Sentinel. April 5, 1998. Retrieved April 5, 2013.
- Welkos, Robert W. (May 11, 1998). "Giving Credit Where It's Due - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 November 2010.
- "Woof and Warp of "Dog" Screen Credit". E! Online. December 23, 1997. Retrieved June 1, 2011.
- Wag The Dog, Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved December 26, 2011
- Wag The Dog, Metacritic, retrieved December 26, 2011
- Roger Ebert (January 2, 1998). "Wag The Dog". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2011-12-26.
- "Awards" on IMDB.com
- "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 2012-01-23.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
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